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March 7, 2010

Girls Behaving Badly: “Can We Talk?” or How ‘Bout Shut up and Listen
by WomenInComedy - 1

“Bubble wrap packing material turned 50, officially making it the only material not found in Joan Rivers' face.” Though it’s not a joke comedienne Joan Rivers told, I like to think it’s one she might have put in the act (kind of because I wrote it) but more so because she remains the icon for a legion of women courageously putting it all on the line for laughs.

It would be nice to open the History of Comedy book and point to a Moses-like Biblical incident when, in big, booming, capital letters: THE FIRST FEMALE STAND-UP COMIC TOOK THE STAGE! Unfortunately, this book doesn’t exist, but leaving that small detail aside, neither does any one definitive moment or one notable figure that may credibly claim bringing estrogen to stand-up (though many have tried). Women found their way into stand-up comedy the same way they found themselves in judges’ robes, doctors’ coats, and behind enemy lines: they just, like, kinda did it. The opportunities for men and women in the performing arts exploded in the period between 1920 and 1950 due to a proliferation of many different types of theatres, including, eventually, nightclubs like the Copacabana and the popularity of radio, film, and later in the century, television.

Many women like African American comedienne Moms Mabley and Jean Carroll were already regulars on the vaudeville track. Other women meandered their way into the growing beast known as “show business” through work as chorus girls or pageantry. Sally Marr worked her way into the comic ranks by competing in Charleston contests. Though married with a child, Marr divorced her husband and in order to more fully pursue her career, handed her son, Leonard off to her husband. She earned modest success telling risqué jokes at a steady gig at Manhattan’s Club 78. Her son later followed in her footsteps as the incendiary Lenny Bruce.

Most of these women found they harbored a natural inclination to combine aspects of their comic routine such as humorous songs with funny anecdotes or personal stories. This latter aspect is, perhaps, what set female stand-ups apart from men: not only did these women use themselves, their flaws or issues as comic material, but they also drew upon their relationships with their men, their children, and their families as grist for the comic mill.

During a time period where America was busy building white picket fences, sending their children to segregated schools, and encouraging young women to perfect their meat loaf recipes in order to land a man, an outspoken woman may have been tolerated and celebrated by some, but not necessarily embraced by all. Consequently, when a woman like Phyllis Diller took the stage and launched into her material about how her sister slept around so much “It took a driving instructor two days to teach her how to sit up in a car” or how her mother-in-law was so fat she didn’t know her measurements, adding, “We haven’t surveyed her yet,” for better, and sometimes worse, people took notice.

As women put themselves fully in the, sometimes, harsh solo spotlight, they risked a backlash from the male comic establishment and from the general public. Even well into the late twentieth century, attitudes about women and comedy remained stubbornly stuck in reverse with male critics or fellow male performers declaring that women didn’t belong in comedy. Some felt that women couldn’t “be” funny (Thanks John Belushi, too bad you’re too dead to see how wrong you are. Guess drugs can’t “be” eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner). Others contended that women should stick to light, genteel subject matter like puppies, cookies, and the American flag. Apparently these same critics never anticipated filthy, funny femmes like Sarah Silverman, Margaret Cho, and Sandra Bernhardt. Sadly, one of the most influential and important figures who reigned over the late-night comedy scene for nearly three decades, Johnny Carson, held a particularly low opinion of female stand-ups. In a Rolling Stone interview Carson declared:

A woman is feminine, a woman is not abrasive, a woman is not a hustler. So when you see a gal who does “stand-up” one-liners, she has to overcome that built-in identification as a retiring, meek woman. I mean, if a woman comes out and starts firing one-liners, those little abrasive things, you can take that from a man. The ones that try sometimes are a little aggressive for my taste. I’ll take it from a guy, but from a woman, sometimes, it just doesn’t fit too well (reprinted in, I’m Dying Up Here: High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era by William Knoedelseder)

Tell us how you really feel, Johnny, heyy-o! Though Joan Rivers guest hosted for the original king of late-night, it was not without considerable tension from sponsors and the NBC brass who were uncomfortable with her aggressive and frank hosting style. Mostly, they were probably disappointed that she didn’t show enough leg and confused by words like “menstruation” and “chauvinism.”

Regardless of these perceptions, women forged ahead in this branch of comedy, making spectacular, and in many cases, heroic strides. Their blood, sweat, tears, sagging boobs, dyed hair, odd-shaped thighs, cheating partners, nagging mothers, obnoxious bosses, and fear of commitment, child birth, and Rugby are the seeds that feed a new generation of fearless, funny women hungry for the mic each night.

See sample videos here:

Phyllis Diller "bird legs"

Moms Mabley, this is audio footage with graphics

Joan Rivers, 1967 Ed Sullivan Show

Joan Rivers, 1984 as host of the Tonight Show

Sarah Silverman, 1992

Margaret Cho

Sandra Bernhardt on Letterman, 1989

1 comment

  1. AWESOME blog! And thank you for the links! :D Alyson